September 22, 2009
Yesterday was my first full day in Mombasa. The morning started with breakfast in the dining room of the Lotus Hotel where we are staying. I opted for fruit, “wheatibix” (it looks like a granola bar, but is really just compressed cereal that expands when you pour milk on it) and tried a few gulps of uji, a sort of purple-y colored millet porridge that I loved!
After breakfast, the group headed out to Biashara (“Business”) Street to buy kangas, bui buis and kanzus. I ended up with a bui bui, a long black silky sack that has long sleeves (mine are ruffled!) and is so long it drags on the floor just a bit when I am wearing no shoes. To go with the bui bui, I also have a black head scarf to cover my hair and ears. It was very strange to wear it. I felt somehow like wearing it was mocking the Swahilli people, but they were very, very pleased by the fact that the whole group was so well dressed.
Buying it was so overwhelming. We were all crowded into this tiny little shop and were greeted over and over by the shop owner who kept enthusiastically shaking our hands and saying “Welcome, family of Barack Obama!”. I didn’t so much decide on a bui bui as much as pick the first one I tried on that was the right length. I didn’t realize it had ruffly sleeves until after I bought it, which I hated at first, but have really grown on me since then.
Even all of the men bought kanzus and the little man hats or head shawl things that go with them. A kanzu is a white or light colored sort of “man dress” that has long sleeves and about ankle length. It has been very funny to watch all of the men try to figure out how to navigate obstacles like stairs and curbs in their kanzus. I think they have a new respect for us girls who wear skirts and dresses on a semi-regular basis here in East Africa.
Next, we all went to an end of Ramadan ceremony that was occurring in the town center. The imam even announced the group from Lewis and Clark as guests. We were all sitting their sweating in our bui buis and kanzus, men on one side of the room, women on the other, but it was such a nice gesture to be recognized like that. After the women in the group left, the men were asked to stay behind so they could go up to the pavilion and be formally introduced. I haven’t had a chance to ask any of them about that yet, so I’m not quite sure what exactly that entailed.
We went back to “Island Dishes”, the same Swahili restaurant we ate at shortly after arriving in mombasa. The fare was much the same, I had some spiced vegetables and flat bread with a spicy sauce, but there was also fish, chicken, chapatti, rice and other dishes. We tried a sort of gummy traditional Swahili candy desert that I was not fond of at all and tamarin juice (which I loved) and then finished the meal with Swahili coffee, which comes in a tiny, tiny cup and I so heavily spiced that even I drank it because it didn’t taste like coffee at all.
After that we went back to the Lotus Hotel for the chance to shower and “freshen up” for our evening activites. Ahkmed Shake, the Swahili man who has been the main person guiding us around the city, met us all in the evening to take us to a mosque and show us how muslims pray.
We went to a small, private family mosque, but it was beautiful. Ahkmed Shake is a very, very devout muslim and it was so incredible of him to teach us so much about his religion. He let us watch him do the traditional ablutions before prayer in which muslims go to a special room in the downstairs of the mosque to ritually cleanse themselves before the prayer. He demonstrated how in order to be properly clean before prayer, muslims wash their hands, mouths, noses, ears, feet and head three times each before going back upstairs to pray. He also explained that the ritual washing in the mosque was for men only and that when women come to the mosque they have already done their ablutions at home first.
We went back upstairs and he faced Mecca and did a ritual set of prayers – the same that he would do (in varying number and at various volumes, depending on which of the five daily times of prayer it was). Then, he turned to address the group.
He thanked us for coming to the mosque and expressed his happiness at being able to share with us some of his knowledge about Islam. He told us that while there are many people who would not welcome us into their mosques because we are not muslims, he believes that any true muslim would open the door for anyone respectful and wanting to learn. He also explained that Islam isn’t a religion of missonaries or conversion – that if you want to become a muslim, the way you do it is simply to know in your heart that you believe in Allah as the one and true god, begin to follow the 5 Pillars of Islam (the principle practices and values of the faith), attend services at the mosque and learn all you can about the religion.
We also wandered around Old Town Mombasa for quite a while. The streets are such a maze, that the modern day police force in Mombasa won’t even enter it because the roads are so narrow, curved and confusing that only its natives can really find their way about. We walked to a vantage point where we could see the old harbor that had been used for trading until the bigger, deeper harbor on the other side of Mombasa became the more widely used (according to David Sperling, during the Gulf War, Mombasa was the closest friendly port to the war for the American forces, so the US channeled about 76 million dollars into expanding and deepening the harbor).
All of the people we met were very friendly. They all really respect us for wearing their dress and all of us girls were getting comments about how beautiful we all were. Unlike in Riruta where these comments were followed by further creepy conversation or behavior, here in Mombasa, men some quite content to comment on your bui bui wearing beauty and then be on their way.
After seeing the Swahilli side of things, David Sperling decided it was time for us to experience our first (and likely last) taste of “coloniana” before we head off to Tanzania (which has no British colonial hold outs because it was a German colony). We went to the “Mombasa Club” for dinner, an exclusive members only club we were able to gain access to because Prof. Sperling is indeed a member and it was a Monday night, so things were fairly slow.
The whole place was incredible, starting with the ladies’ room many of us went to in order to change out of our bui buis. Some girls decided to eat dinner in their bui buis, but Rachel and I both reasoned that if dressing like a Swahili was appropriate for visiting Old Town Momasa, then dressing like a Westerner would surely be the way to go for spending time in an old colonial hot spot. Before dinner, David took us on a short tour of the Club, even showing us the room he prefers to stay in (Members can book very nice rooms in the Club for a fraction of what a nice hotel in the area would cost). There several incredible sitting areas that look right out onto the Indian Ocean and catch the lovliest cool breezes in the evening. We even went into the “Men’s Bar” that until recently did not even admit female members, but now does and then went to the dining area where we ate our dinner.
I ended up at a very small table with just Ken and Mara Clifton which was very, very fun. We all really enjoyed the meal of rice, swordfish and vegetables and even more so the ice cream for dessert. Also, David Sperling had ordered us all fresh lime juice to drink with dinner which was perfect and so refreshing.
After dinner, all of us in our very conspicuous wazungu glory trekked back to the Lotus Hotel for some much needed sleep!
Missing you all, but loving Mombasa,